HOUSTON — There was something noble in how Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien and his Oakland Raiders counterpart, Jack Del Rio, masked their disappointment while naming respective starting quarterbacks for their Saturday AFC Wild Card postseason game at NRG Stadium.
Although hardly planned, the game will feature a duel between quarterbacks who represent the most expensive free-agent disappointment of this last offseason against the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to debut as a starter in a playoff game.
To sum up: Oakland rookie Connor Cook debuts on the road in a playoff game against Houston’s expensive, free-agent disappointment, Brock Osweiler.
For the Texans (9-7), champions of the AFC South, Osweiler reclaimed his post because Tom Savage was lost to a concussion in the season finale against the Tennessee Titans. Savage supplanted the ineffective Osweiler against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 18.
The Raiders (12-4) roared to their first playoff appearance since 2002 behind MVP candidate and third-year quarterback Derek Carr. He passed his way onto some MVP ballots by passing for 3,937 yards and 28 touchdowns before breaking his right fibula in Week 17. In week Carr’s journeyman backup, Matt McGloin, injured his shoulder. Now Cook will get his first NFL start.
On Wednesday, O’Brien ruled Savage out against Oakland and elevated Brandon Weeden to backup status. That leaves the responsibility of beating the Raiders solely on Osweiler, whose poor statistical production this season was at the crux of the Texans’ woeful offense and minus-49 point-differential.
“As a head coach, every decision you make is all about the best interest of the team and what’s the best way that we can help the team win,” O’Brien said. “As it relates to players maybe being moved from starter to backup role, I think every coach and every player learns from those situations.”
Following his decent midseason run as the starter with the Denver Broncos last season, Osweiler was deemed the solution to the Texans’ longstanding issues at quarterback. Houston signal caller Brian Hoyer committed five turnovers in last year’s embarrassing 30-0 postseason setback to the Kansas City Chiefs, prompting the Texans front office to bestow a four-year, $72 million contract upon Osweiler.
What they received in return was a quarterback who posted the lowest yards per attempt (5.8) of any starter in the league and one who stewarded an offense that ranked 28th in scoring (279 points), 29th in yards (5,035), and 30th in passing touchdowns (15). Houston produced a paltry 23 offensive touchdowns.
“I’ve had great success in this league playing football so I’m very confident,” Osweiler said. “I’m very confident in my teammates and I know we’ll be ready to go.”
When Carr was lost, the Raiders were at least able to bring in McGloin, who had starts for the Raiders in 2013, including a 28-23 road win over the Texans. In that game, he passed for three touchdowns and 197 yards with a 105.9 rating.
But when McGloin injured his non-throwing shoulder last week, Del Rio turned to Cook, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State.
“I’m just embracing the opportunity,” Cook said. “Going to go out there and have fun, let it all hang out and obviously prepare my butt off, do what I’ve been doing all season long and just go out there and have fun with my teammates.”
The challenge ahead for both teams is to make the best of the given roster components. Osweiler delivered a decent performance in a 27-20 loss to the Raiders in Week 11, passing for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Texans settled for two red-zone field goals, par for the course for an offense than finished 31st in red-zone touchdown percentage at 40.9 percent. No matter the quarterback, the Texans will need greater red-zone proficiency to produce positive results.
Oakland still employs two 1,000-yard receivers in Amari Cooper (83 receptions for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns) and Michael Crabtree (89-1,003-8) plus a stout offensive line. And, for what it is worth, Cook may actually have a stronger throwing arm than McGloin or even Carr. But that isn’t necessarily the measure for success at quarterback.
Houston boasts the second-ranked passing defense in the NFL so the challenge was going to be a tough one for an experienced NFL quarterback.
For a team that features seven Pro Bowlers and that won 12 games for the first time since 2000, resilience is a necessary asset to keep what has been a magical season alive for one additional week.
“You do the best you can regardless of the circumstances,” Del Rio said. “It’s a great opportunity. You have these great opportunities in life to be at your best and you do get these great challenges. So, how do you respond?
“What we want to do is respond like men and go in there full of energy and belief and fight our butts off.”